Holocaust: Lessons for the Future

Yakov Rabkin
April 2009

Written for The Australian in April 2009.

Holocaust: Lessons for the Future

By Yakov M Rabkin*

The industrialized massacre perpetrated by the Nazi machine over sixty years ago continues to haunt our memory. This tragedy remains a source of important lessons for the future.

The Holocaust created a wave of support for Zionism, among Jews and Gentiles alike. The Zionist movement used this sentiment and the overwhelming need to provide a shelter for thousands of survivors who could not or would not return to their countries of birth as a powerful political tool to establish the State of Israel. It is little wonder that many came to believe that an unarmed Jew is as good as a dead one. Jews were weak. To survive, they must be strong and acquire a country – and an army. A state based on ethnic solidarity was to offer a better and safer future than liberal pluralistic societies.

Hannah Arendt, a German Jewish refugee who fled the Nazis to the United States, disagreed. She wrote about Nazi crimes in terms of “banality of evil”, firmly believing that murderous amorality is not limited to one nation or one ideology. Quite a few prominent Jews of German origin drew similar lessons from the history of the Nazi genocide. Hannah Arendt, alongside with the theologian Martin Buber, the philosopher Ernst Simon and the physicist Albert Einstein, warned against the inherent danger of exclusive ethnic nationalism. This is why, in the wake of the Second World War, they supported the idea of a common state for all inhabitants of Palestine: Arabs and Jews.

However, those who dominated the Zionist movement waged a successful military campaign, which squashed the egalitarian hope of these Jews by turning nearly 800 000 Arab inhabitants of Palestine into refugees and thus creating “empty” space for a state for the Jews (Judenstaat). The Holy Land was thus plunged into incessant conflict.

This outcome was not inevitable. Before the 1948 war was over, Arendt had foreseen the perils of establishing an ethnocracy that would chronically rely on military force:

And even if the Jews were to win the war, … the “victorious” Jews

would live surrounded by an entirely hostile Arab population,

secluded inside ever-threatened borders, absorbed with physical

self-defence…. And all this would be the fate of a nation that — no

matter how many immigrants it could still absorb and how far it

extended its boundaries — would still remain a very small

people greatly outnumbered by hostile neighbours.

These words have lost none of their poignancy sixty years after they were written. Israel’s overwhelming might has not brought it peace. This is why many Israelis expect Western democracies to prod Israel towards compromise and integration in the Middle East.

Many people mean well but they confuse Jews, who suffered in the Holocaust because of their ethnicity, with the state of Israel, conceived as an ethnocracy for the Jews. Israel’s dominant ideology is predicated on the impossibility of a Jew to be fully accepted in any country except Israel. It is quite clear that many Jews do not share this belief. This is why, when given a chance, most Jews, including quite a few Israelis, prefer peaceful pluralistic democracies to the perennially threatened Israel. For example, hundreds of thousands of ex-Soviet Jews chose to move to Germany and other Western countries in the late 20th century. The number of German passports issued to Israeli descendants of Jewish Jews fleeing from Nazism has skyrocketed in the last few years.

The founders of Israel passionately desired Israel to be treated as a “normal state”. It is about time to make their dream come true. Australia and other Western countries should indeed treat Israel like any other state. Israel’s founders discarded traditional Jewish values of non-violence to create a “muscular Jew” (Muskuljude) who bears little resemblance to Diaspora Jews. As is well documented in The Seventh Million by the Israeli writer Tom Segev, Holocaust survivors from Europe were met with humiliation when they arrived in Israel: the intrepid muscular Jews overtly disdained the powerless Jews who landed on their shores.

Israel’s behaviour flies in the face of the lessons that most citizens in liberal democracies, including many prominent Jews, learned from the history of Nazism, namely the need to build a pluralistic democracy based on equality. The kind of Zionism that has triumphed in Israel is not the inclusive and spiritual version dear to Martin Buber but the exclusive and vindictive one developed by Vladimir Jabotinsky, which Einstein and other prominent German Jewish intellectuals abhorred and denounced.

Many countries’ continuing genuflection to the State of Israel is based on the myth according to which Israel represents the Jews around the world and constitutes their natural homeland. Rather than treat Israel as a collective victim of the Holocaust, Australia should recognize it as a Middle Eastern country with its own history, interests and values. Australia should treat Israel like it treats any other country in the region: on its merits. This would also help the dream of the founding fathers of Zionism to come true: that Israel should become a normal nation rather than a legatee of the Holocaust.

* The author is Professor of History at the University of Montreal. His recent book A Threat from Within: A Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism (London: Zedbooks) was nominated for Canada’s Governor General Literary Award and Israel’s Hecht Prize for studies in Zionism. Professor Rabkin will be a guest of the History Programme at La Trobe University in May 2009.

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Holocaust: Lessons for the Future